A Longer Journey – revised March 2013
I spent October 28th 2010 on a canal boat, being filmed for a BBC programme about inland waterways history. I was initially approached for my academic background and writings about inland waterways history, but mentioned that I had old cine films made by my late father between 1963 and 1966. After these had been converted to digital images, I was contacted with a view to returning to scenes that had been filmed in the summer of 1963, in the Nantwich area. This essay partly recounts my memories of the journeys taken that day, but also the wider journeys of which these were part.
I had been interviewed for radio in the 1990s, and in 2002 had appeared on a television programme, the late and not-so-lamented Kilroy. The latter had been a very emotional experience, since it featured a number of younger widowers (including myself), some of whom were in great distress. It took great self-control not to break down myself as I watched young men break down, or to witness the cold and austere bitterness of one Ulsterman, who said afterwards that he just wished for his own death. I reacted by putting on a semi-academic persona, attempting to analyse different measures and courses of grief, and making the closing comment to end on a note of hope. It was not a hope that I then felt, but my efforts, then and elsewhere, to stand apart from the towering emotions would later earn me hate emails, many of them from widowed women.
My TV role on the 27th had no explicit emotional encounters, although I was to be asked about matters that had caused great concern to others in the distant past. My task was simply to reproduce part of a holiday trip that my family had taken in 1963 from Nantwich north along the Shropshire Union Canal to the village of Barbridge and back. The film crew proposed to record scenes on this journey, and since Dad had only recorded limited scenes, I had suggested that it would be sufficient to film these from the bank. However, this was not the producer’s intention. His approach was to make this part of the programme about me, and about my journey re-enacting part of the 1963 trip. I stressed, but not to camera, that in retrospect it would have seemed unlikely that the canal could have survived in the 1960s to enable my journey to take place over 40 years later.
I had taken boat holidays with my father, mother and elder sisters between 1963 and 1973, and then a single week’s trip in 1977. Once I had my own car, and my own house, and was able to organize visits and holidays for myself, it seemed inappropriate to continue on family holidays; thus, although I continued to be interested in canals and would become heavily involved in research into their history, I took no further holidays on boats. I did help out occasionally, the most memorable being with my father in August 1986, less than two months before his sudden death. Later, after the loss of my first wife, people involved in the historic boating enthusiast scene introduced me to the crewing of historic boats, and that helped me to recover some sense of purpose, so that eventually I started again to research and write about waterways history, although with a different and enlarged focus.
I had never, however, been in full charge of a boat, so it was with some difficulty that I grasped the reality: the film crew expected me to steer an unfamiliar boat for some five miles, on a length busy with pleasure boats hired for the school half-term. A boat, longer than any that Dad had hired or owned, had been hired for the day, and the first filming was of my walking along to this boat, with the dog, and going on board. I had to repeat this twice, while the camera was moved to different positions. Mike, from the hire company, had explained to the film crew how the boat was operated, but he was then filmed, from different angles, explaining this to me. Then, the engine was started, and we were ready to go.
Probably because she had not been on the 1963 trip, my wife Sara was not filmed, and the presence of the producer, asking a long series of questions, was masked. From the film it would appear that I was steering the boat single-handed. I moved off gingerly, steering along a long length lined with boats, and then out into open country. This was familiar territory, since Dad had moored a succession of boats at Nantwich since 1965, and his last boat, now owned by my mother, was still moored there.
I did point out various scenes from the 1963 film en route, but during the first part the crew seemed content simply to film me steering the boat. It was disconcerting to watch the camera operator, a young Dane, climb onto the boat’s roof, erect a flimsy seat and film me from that position. I had to point out that he was in danger of serious injury if he was swept from the roof by contact with an overbridge, or even decapitated. The crew were amused, and promised to be careful, but I pointed out that on at least two occasions I had saved people who seemed to be on the verge of being crushed between a boat and a bridge. My warnings then had been met with some resentment, but my motives were simply that it was impossible to stand idly by while lives were endangered, not any sort of heroism.
I had wondered whether my academic interests were to be considered, but just before I boarded the boat I was told that I would be asked for my views on two early waterways enthusiasts, Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt, who have, in a way, been regarded as heroes in retrospect. Had I been forewarned, I would have brought along writings, notes and archive items like letters from the late 1940s, but instead I had to dredge my memories of what I had researched about these characters. Halfway to Barbridge, we moored up, and as the available light was doubtful and rain was threatening, the producer, Ian, and I sat down on low canvas chairs on a muddy towpath, and a long interview was conducted.
The place which had been selected was perhaps the busiest point on the whole canal system that day, with boat after boat descending the locks at Hurleston Junction. Over and over again the interview had to stop while planes, including an historic biplane, passed overhead. The sound man also stopped during the sound of paddles being raised and boats going past. I was puzzled by this, as these were sounds familiar to waterways both in pleasure and (past) commercial use, but he explained that as the interview would be condensed and divided, there had to be a similar soundtrack to separate sections, to ensure continuity.
Ian had briefed himself well, but had relied on an account of postwar waterways history that had implied that Britain’s waterways were “saved” by the efforts of voluntary enthusiasts, and specifically Robert Aickman, a dominant figure. To demolish some aspects of this hagiographical account, and to insist on the immense complexity of forces involved in postwar waterways revival, was difficult, especially as I was not in control of the interview. I began, using my “best” academic semantic, by questioning the meaning of “saved” in the context of historic waterways. I also tried to stress the involvement of Charles Hadfield, whose biography I had written, and who was an influential member of the British Waterways Board (the waterways’ governing body) during the period when Dad was making his films; this period was the one on which the future of waterways was most under threat. I then tried to explain the convolutions that had brought about the “saving” of the waterway at Hurleston, and the way in which Aickman and others had taken credit for the efforts of a local official.
Finally, I was put on the spot: if it was not Aickman, who could it be said “saved” the waterways? I stressed that there were wide movements and major social change involved, but if different people had occupied the positions of Minister of Transport and General Manager of British Waterways in the mid-1960s, much would have been lost. Thus, I said, knowing that this would be controversial, the waterways owed much to Barbara Castle (the minister) and a career civil servant called Arnold Allen – neither an enthusiast or zealot. Afterwards, in conversation with Ian, I stressed that there were many other significant figures, but he reassured me that the programme was more for entertainment than to resolve controversy. He stressed that it is impossible to present really complex issues on television; I had known this in abstract but now found it illustrated. Without full editorial control of the agenda, both the question of what is visually filmed and edited, and the words used, can be distorted from the kind of account that greater preparation and deeper analysis might produce.
We proceeded to Barbridge, where Dad had moored up in 1963 and filmed a commercial narrow boat, a British Waterways boat probably carrying metals from the Mersey to Wolverhampton. Dad’s film showed this boat passing and then rounding a bend in the distance. I was asked to comment on the idea that the boats represented two worlds passing: the commercial boat that would soon be part of the past, and the hired pleasure boat that would represent the future for which waterways would be retained. I concurred with this, but also sought to explain that, for many after the 1960s, it was the general environmental benefits, in conservation of the historic and landscapes, along with the expansion of informal leisure, like towpath walking, that was critical.
What I did not say was that for many there was an emotional pull, a deep sense of loss, if only a loss of potential, in the transition to leisure use; and I did not say that, in some undefineable way, I too felt that kind of loss, and that had provided one reason why I had not wished to follow my father in exploring waterways for leisure.
On the way back most of the filming, in fading light, was complete, bar a lot of background. It was almost dark when we reached the basin at Nantwich, and I found it unnerving to have to make complex manoeuvres to reach a berth there. My feelings were that this apparently simple journey had embodied several experiences of transition. Dad’s films had shown him teaching me how to steer, but it was 47 years later that I had finally found myself in charge of a boat, upon which no one else had experience of steering. I had been surprised to learn that this could become a satisfying experience, gently moving the tiller to achieve minor changes of course, passing through a largely rural landscape in similar manner to many working boats of the mid-twentieth century. There were so few boats moving on the way back that this was much more like the 1960s as I recalled it.
There was some sense of connection with my father, who had followed this route many times, and would recognize most of it today, despite the 24 years since his death. But there was an odder, more poignant sense in which I was not following him at all. To make the programme, I was being filmed alone, although I had my wife Sara with me. Unlike my father I have no son, or other children, to introduce to waterways. While I maintain no illusions over the problems that children can bring, I was not childless by choice, and there are moments when the lack of a family brings sadness, and when I wonder how it would have felt to have my own children. As I was pondering this, empathy with a stranger poignancy crept in, in that my father, as all parents do, must have sometimes wondered what would happen to his children once he was gone, and the devastation that this would bring. The back of a boat, steering on one’s own, can be a place for such odd musings.
A further aspect of this journey was the interaction with a past that is, so often, unknowable. I appreciated the sense of empathy with many who had steered boats on this canal for a living, but their jouneys involved very different boats, engines, motives and living conditions. Ian stressed that he had had no previous encounters with waterways and that to gain enough knowledge to ask sensible questions, he had had to do much reading, including one of my books. I was impressed by his knowledge and grasp of a subject that is often woefully misunderstood. And yet, en route I reflected that I was probably one of the few people out that day who knew anything of the history of the canal. I had interviewed engineers, all now dead, involved with the process whereby the waterway had been “saved” for leisure purposes; Arnold Allen had kindly and candidly explained his position, as had his deputy, to me, and I had read documentation that few, if anyone, had read. It nevertheless seemed so easy that all these people and the events in which they participated could be misunderstood. I had spent much time assessing the role of people in events that took place before I attended secondary school, and I had tried to explain, and judge, the sides in one personal controversy that had taken place 60 years ago. The sense of dislocation was greater as that felt from scenes of 45-47 years ago in which I was depicted. What if, in reality, I had got it wrong, and helping to contribute to the condemnation of people who, however, misguided, believed in a cause and cared so much, that they would lose friends over it?
For me, it is only possible to explore the past by standing back and attempting to analyse it, weighing evidence, looking for patterns and structures, developing analogies, drawing arguments and conclusions and presenting the whole as complete and detached from its author. Often it does not seem that way, as I felt when I was on the Kilroy programme. But it may be presented in that manner.
I do not know the shape of the eventual programme, although it seems unlikely, after a long day’s filming, that my contribution will not feature somewhere. It may be that I am pictured in contrast to embarrassing images of my seven-year old self. The film will abstract from a story, of a historian making a journey by boat, when he does not usually use pleasure boats at all. However it is produced, it will give an impression that is false, although my spoken reflections may be accurate enough.
In a sense, this shaping of a false story is similar to that in Dad’s amateur cine films. Almost everything has to be inferred from what appears and the very limited memories of everyone involved, bar myself. Why did he film what he filmed? Lighting conditions were clearly significant, and weather conditions generally. It was also clear that it was impossible to safely steer the boat and get worthwhile shots for most of the time. He seems to have shared my interests in engineering, although family film shows of bank-laying and dredging must have seemed eccentric. Even if he had troubled to edit the limited scenes, it is unclear what impression they would give of the holidays from which they were abstracted. My memories of these is that they were interesting, but not especially happy times, but this does not come out in the films. They did not set out to tell a story, and they do not do so. Their meaning then remains as unclear as some aspects of the 1960s history that I (and others) have so painstakingly unearthed. Their meaning now is very different. They represent a chance to see moving (in more than one sense) pictures of my father and the rest of my family, and, as I have written elsewhere, the strong suspicion that my father was, quietly, much more supportive of me than I had realized. They depict places that have been modified and uncloud memories that feel unclear when those scenes are visited today. Above all, they provide a record of my father as author. He has left almost no written words, one audio recording, some still photographs – and these films. They are his final legacy, and unpicking some of their meanings brings me closer to him. It will be interesting to discover how a much more purposive film interprets them, and it is to be hoped that this does not present an overly contrived or false account.
Postscript: the BBC film, The Golden Age of the Canals, duly appeared, and I did feature in it, with one especially poignant moment. The boat company no longer hires boats. The steerer of the boat was later identified – John Jinks (1940-1993), so he is no longer an anonymous figure. Incidentally, one prize and anonymous idiot questioned the phrase “the devastation that this would bring” about Dad’s early death. Yes, it was indeed devastation. Not ‘arf! If you couldn’t see it, that is your problem!
Revised March 2013